Why Everything Matters in a Novel – Guest Post by Jody Mabry

For a new writer, this can be a punch to the gut. What do you mean people don’t want to know the Ozark Mountains are the third oldest mountain range in the world? A quick, unnecessary fact: the one about the Ozarks was mine 15 years ago. Trimming down is easily one of the most difficult tasks any writer faces. However, with a few clues on what you should keep and what you shouldn’t, you should be on your way to trimming that 300,000-word epic about a little girl and her dog into something more readable.

Description is good, as long as it continues to move the story forward. Fun facts are not always in this category. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying, no fun facts should be in your book—ever. Show us what the person looks like through narrative and dialogue. And guess what? You do not have to vomit description all over the readers. Some of the best descriptors are those that go unnoticed like gently dropped bread crumbs along the journey.

Your character should not pick up a book, to simply pick it up and then put it down. Your character should have an explicit meaning in everything they do. For example, if your character picks up a book, they sure better be using that book for something in the short future. Is your character going to knock someone over the head with it to escape from a tower? Will they write their phone number in it, and hand the book to a lover? Will they pen a secret code on page 201 that unlocks a safe? If your character is not doing something to move the story forward, then they should not do it.

If your character has a flashback, the flashback should make sense to the story, and be used in the story. If you are talking about your grandfather and use a flashback to say how he always turns the TV off every time someone in the room talks, then that should have meaning in the story. While it may be a good description of your grandfather’s dislike of people talking during the Cubs game, unless he does this in your story, and it is a big part of your grandfather’s role in the story, it would be best to leave it out.

Don’t allude to things and think you are mysterious. A mystery has well-placed clues, often placed well enough that you didn’t even know the clue was there. Leaving the reader with a statement such as, “My buddy Richie left town without speaking a word…I wouldn’t find out until many years later why he did.” If you say this, you better mention why Richie left town pretty darn quick. If you don’t your reader will start to try and figure it out, and what they imagine will likely be crazier than what you have happen, which will lead to disappointment. The other problem with these statements is that there is potential you, your editor, and publisher miss the fact that you never actually did tell the reader why Richie left town. That’s alright, readers will catch it for you, they always do… and after your book is published.

Just remember, even the smallest detail has to push that story forward. Don’t try to show off how many facts you memorized in college, or how good you are at Trivial Pursuit. The reader just wants a good story.

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